Rising from the Ashes: Resilience and Recovery in Mallacoota, Australia

Rising from the Ashes: Resilience and Recovery in Mallacoota, Australia

One year on from the Australian bushfire crisis, two hoteliers tell us how the community has rallied together to get back on its feet.

In partnership withTourism Australia

This aritcle appears in Vol. 33:

far enough along Victoria’s rough-hewn eastern coastline
and you’ll eventually come across Mallacoota – a quiet, unassuming
fishing inlet flanked by tumbling sand dunes and glittering shores.
One of the most isolated towns in the state, the area is locally
known for its laid-back surfing beaches and mirror-still lakes, but
gained international attention when its blood-red skies were
emblazoned across newspapers all over the world during the
2019-2020 Australian bushfire crisis.

One of the worst-hit towns in Australia, Mallacoota was largely evacuated during the
blaze and lost more than 100 homes to its flames. Husband-and-wife
duo Graeme and Jenny Mitchell, owners of Karbeethong Lodge – a
1920s guesthouse overlooking Mallacoota’s waterfront – count
themselves lucky to have escaped to a neighbouring town before the
fire spread, while the lodge survived unscathed thanks to a
serendipitous change in wind direction.

Three weeks after the fires, Karbeethong
became a temporary home for the army as the couple
returned to accommodate troops who had been drafted in for the
relief effort. One year on from the crisis, Graeme tells us how the
community has rallied to get back on its feet.

Why should travellers come to Mallacoota?

Our small town is surrounded by pristine wilderness: unspoiled
surfing beaches, rugged hills and a beautiful tidal estuary.
Travellers come here to get in touch with nature – there are
spectacular coastal routes for hiking and cycling, and all sorts of
watersports. My favourite place is Goanna Bay; an islet only
accessible by boat. On a hot day you can spot goannas [a large
lizard] up to five metres long lounging languidly in the sun.

What was it like to host the army after the bushfires?

It was a truly incredible experience. One hundred personnel from
the Australian Defence Force stayed with us for two weeks. They set
up an office and a medical unit at the lodge, while an engineering
squad took over our garage to clean their chainsaws every night. I
cannot tell you how hard these troops worked to clear up and repair
the fire damage – they came back black with ash from head to toe
every evening.

What initiatives have sprung up since the crisis?

The Mallacoota
and District Recovery Association
, our community-led recovery
committee, was set up as a “thinking group” in the aftermath of the
fires to collect ideas and skills for a 360-degree recovery
programme. We meet every week to ensure the needs of the community
are being met, and coordinate between different organisations. We
wanted to hold workshops after the fires, but social-distancing
restrictions meant that we had to take this all online – so we’ve
created several fuel-management webinars and mental-health
first-aid programmes, which have proved very popular.

There’s also a brilliant nationwide foundation called Waves of
, which runs surf-therapy sessions and promotes
mental-health awareness. The programme came to Mallacoota last year
and it was a great success. Up until then many people had negative
memories of the beach, where they had been evacuated to during the
fires – it was a wonderful, positive way to reclaim the area.

Are there any local heroes we should know about?

The Country Fire Authority was phenomenal; it runs
community-based fire and emergency services – most people involved
are volunteers who have full-time jobs. They showed remarkable
bravery working alongside our fantastic state firefighters.

I was also amazed at how quickly the Department of Environment,
Land, Water and Planning in Victoria managed to mobilise volunteers
to rehome injured animals. We have a friend who is currently
harbouring four orphaned wombats – she feeds them by hand and
they’ve been sleeping in her bedroom every night!

How is Mallacoota’s landscape regenerating today?

Bushfires are a part of life in Australia, so our landscape is
naturally resilient. Some seeds here actually have to be burnt
before they can grow. Our native wildflowers, grasses and tree
ferns grow back straight away, as do our eucalyptus trees. When my
wife and I returned to Mallacoota three weeks after the bushfires,
we could already spot new green growth along the eucalyptus tree
trunks, which shows just how quickly they bounce back – it was a
very special sight.

The Lowdown

For more information on Mallacoota visit australia.com, or discover Karbeethong Lodge
at karbeethonglodge.com.au

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